I’ve been very busy with personal business, but I had the chance to visit the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
I concentrated on European and American paintings from 1800 to the advent of modernism (about 1925). Many paintings were simply competent, such as View of the Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine from the Palatine by Charles Remond (above), but others were magic. Because the paintings were so accessible, the artist’s technique was quite visible. Details, brushstrokes, and the effects of impasto were observable – things that can’t be easily seen in even good photos.
For instance, this portrait from the Brooklyn Museum shows where the warm underpainting was left visible, creating a lively dialog between the hair and the background, an effect recalling the coloring of the face itself.
The most fascinating result of seeing these paintings in person is the interaction of reality and abstraction. Across the room a painting may look much like a photograph, but on close inspection it is a seemingly random array of paint daubs.
Arques-la-Bataille by John H. Twachtman, is a hazy view over a lake…
….but on close inspection blurred brushstrokes and sharp lines reveal the artist’s hand.
John Singer Sargent was a master of illusion. Here is a small section of his painting, Alpine Pool. It seems a pleasant scrum of warm and cool colors; nothing more.
Stepping back we are surprised by a shimmering pool.
From across the room it is a brilliantly real reality.
A Morning Snow: Hudson River by George Bellows is not a favorite of mine, and Bellows is a little too sloppy for me.
It is, however, interesting to see the awkward strokes that build up to a recognizable scene.
Winslow Homer’s Campfire is also not a favorite, but…
…his depiction of the fire with opaque strokes, smudges and scratched sparks is impressive.
Dancers Practicing at the Barre by Edgar Degas is a daring compositional experiment with broad, dry strokes…
…which contrast with the subtle detailing of the dancers.
Sargent’s Bringing Down Marble from the Quarries to Carrara features his frustratingly facile abstractions…
…that lead to a remarkable illusion of reality.
In contrast with Sargent, In the Laboratory by Henry Alexander, is excruciatingly detailed.
But, the meticulous brushwork is there to see, and admire.
The Ameya by Robert Blum is a near life-sized portrait of a dancer.
In spite of the large scale, the artist has modeled the dress with a very loose style and simple palette.
Willard Metcalf’s The North Country is a bucolic view of a New England town and river.
His loose and unfinished handling of the paint leaves the untreated canvas showing.
Late Afternoon, New York, Winter by Frederick Childe Hassam is, like Metcalf’s painting, impressionistic.
The overall effect is a believable reality, but the detailed view is wild paint and texture.
Joseph Mallord William Turner has been a favorite artist of mine since middle school. Whalers presents the loose, almost abstract style that he had developed by 1845. That’s 1845! A good 30 years before Impressionism got started!
A closer view only increases the sense of the modern.
And, just to remind you where Turner came from, his painting from 1811, Saltash with the Water Ferrry, Cornwall, is an example of the realism, composition and atmosphere he was able to produce when required in his youth.
Frederic Remington’s On the Southern Plains, is again, a balance between representation and reality.
The “daubs” of paint are vigorous, but surprisingly simple (a trait of genius).
Now WHAT the hell is this?!!
Actually, it’s a detail from Repose by John White Alexander, from 1895. Fascinating what they were doing in those days.
On the other hand (and 30 years earlier), Storm in the Rocky Mountains by Albert Bierstadt is dramatic and highly composed, but also…
…relentlessly detailed. It was the equivalent of a blockbuster movie in those days; detail was what the paying public was looking for, and he gave them at least a dozen complete pictures in this one canvas.
Another painting by Alexander, Study in Black and Green plays the game of “is the girl really there or is it just paint”.
Looking away from the face and shoulders, it is strictly paint and abstraction.
Tissot on the other hand, tells a story which is lavish with detail.
His painting entitled Tea is a good example of this (the far faded background excluded).
Still Life, Fish by William Merritt Chase is another tour-de-force example of reality produced by abstract strokes of paint.
The subtlety of coloring is quite astounding in this painting, especially when standing right in front of it.
Turner ‘s Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, shows another aspect of his developing career. The view is less a rendering of reality, then an experiment in color contrast.
His willingness to dissolve the line between stone steps and water is quite courageous for the time.
The Wyndham Sisters, Lady Elcho, Mrs Adeane and Mrs Tennant by Sargent seems a typical group portrait of the time (1899).
Moving in, you begin to read the white of the dresses and sofa as a single statement.
Closer still, and the area becomes a swirl of shapes and colors.
And finally, abstraction and gesture take over!
Thomas Eakins was known for painstaking preparation and execution. His 1876 painting, The Chess Players is a good example of this.
Although only the size of two pages of typing paper, this painting is crammed with exquisite detail.
And, even though a detailed perspective layout preceded the painting, much of the potential detail has been hidden in the handling of the dark polished wood. Eakins deserves a separate post sometime.
Also featured on the museum tour were small sketches and studies. These two sketches by Degas (above and below) are not the best photos, but they still show the quick economic work that sketching should be.
Painting clouds (as you may know) is a sometime hobby of mine. These cloud studies (Distant Storm above, and Early Evening below) by Simon Denis are very small and show the same quick economy as the Degas above.
Similarly, the study of Catania and Mount Etna by Edward Lear was done quickly on site, perhaps for use in a later studio painting.
Stoke-by-Nayland by John Constable is a very early (1810) nature study. His realistic landscapes were an outgrowth of his small landscape studies.
Study of a Female Nude by Henri Lehmann is a very small oil ‘sketch’ recalling the representation vs abstraction theme that I began this post with. I include it here as a perfect example of circular composition. Just squint your eyes, and you’ll see a swirl of light with her breast providing the center point.
As a contrast to Lehmann’s painting, here is Degas with Woman Drying her Foot, a similar nude in a similar pose, but producing a very dynamic pinwheel shape.
Another small painting, Ponte San Rocco and Waterfalls, Tivoli by Francois Marius Granet, uses an arch to frame the view.
The Arch of Constantine Seen from the Colosseum by Lancelot Theodore Turpin de Crisse does the same thing. Don’t blame de Crisse for copying Granet; it’s a good idea, and worth stealing!
A Section of the Via Sacra, Rome (Church of Saints Cosmas and Damian) by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg looks pretty pedestrian, and is. But I kept coming back to it because of the entertaining collage of warm colors, each of a different tone and shape. I don’t quite know how to categorize it, but it made me smile.
The Palace of Donn'Anna, Naples by Jules Coignet is a charming “L” composition. It’s another “I don’t know what I love about this, but I do” painting.
OK… I know exactly why I’m including this one. In spite of the tiny size and rough handling of the paint, it perfectly captures the lighting of the room. It is, by the way, The Artist's Sitting Room in Ritterstrasse by Adolph Menzel.
The Shepherdess of Rolleboise by Daniel Ridgway Knight is a bit too “studio” and “Bouguereau” for me. But the depiction of the landscape and background is a testament to his powers of observation.
Uprooted Tree at Olevano Romano by Antoine Xavier Gabriel de Gazeau is another small but masterly sketch. The exploding "star"composition and brushwork is especially impressive in person.
View over Hallingdal by Johan Christian Dahl is simply the archetype of a “serpentine” composition.
And so I come to the end of my museum tour. It was exciting, but eventually tiring (I must be getting old).
This final image (above) is a fragment of a wonderful painting of a street somewhere in the orient. Unfortunately I didn’t note the name of the painting or the artist. If you recognize it please drop me a line with the info.
And, happy muse-ing to you all!